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Scholarship program fails to attract NSW teachers as staff prepare to strike for first time in a decade

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Only six industry professionals among intake for Teach.Maths NOW scholarship in 2020 and all but one dropped out of program

A New South Wales government program aimed at convincing professionals to become maths teachers attracted only six people last year, five of who dropped out before their scholarships were complete.

As the state’s public school teachers prepare for their first strike in almost a decade on Tuesday, new figures have cast doubt on the success of the government’s attempts to address teacher shortages in NSW without significantly increasing pay.

In 2019, the state government announced the Teach.Maths NOW scholarship to lure current undergraduates and industry professionals with a background in pure or applied mathematics to become teachers.

But the program has struggled to attract and retain applicants. Despite funding for 160 placements, the program was only offered to 53 people in its first two years. Now, new figures obtained by the Guardian show the program has also failed to keep many of the industry professionals who did apply.

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According to the government, only six industry professionals were among the intake for the Teach.Maths NOW scholarship in 2020. Of those, all but one dropped out of the program “citing a number of reasons including changes in circumstances during the Covid-19 pandemic”, the government said.

The government said it had made substantial changes to the program, and in 2021, 13 of the 17 industry professionals who signed up for the scholarship remained, but the struggle to attract and keep teachers through Teach.Maths NOW underscores a larger problem.

The NSW Department of Education has warned that a significant shortage of teachers – particularly in subjects such as maths and science – is affecting the quality of students’ learning. But the state government has rejected the claim of the teachers’ union that inadequate salaries are leading to declining enrolments in education degrees and an increase in the number of teachers leaving the profession.

That’s set the stage for the first teachers’ strike in almost a decade on Tuesday. Staff will defy an order from the Industrial Relations Commission and walk off the job as part of a campaign to see wages increase by 5% with an extra 2.5% to recognise experience.

The government has offered a 2.5% pay increase in line with its longstanding cap on wages for public servants and has rejected the argument that the department’s staff issues are related to pay.

“It is unfortunate but not surprising the [NSW Teachers] Federation continues to attack a staffing strategy, informed by credible research, which seeks to build a sustainable pipeline of quality teachers through various initiatives including increasing pay and financial incentives,” the education minister, Sarah Mitchell, told the Guardian.

“At no point has the federation engaged in any proactive conversations on how to improve staffing in hard-to-staff regional areas.

“Arguing that the only way to attract more people to teaching is a pay increase wilfully ignores the complexities of the modern profession and genuine independent research on the issue.”

As the wages dispute with the union escalated, the government last month released a $125m teacher supply strategy as part of its bid to tackle the problem without lifting wages above the 2.5% cap.

But Labor has attacked the plan for its vagueness. The funding includes, among other things, a $5m marketing strategy to attract teachers, and a plan to poach 500 science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) teachers from other states and jurisdictions.

Other states, such as Western Australia, recently announced their own plans to poach teachers from NSW.

Labor has seized on responses provided by the government to supplementary budget estimates questions which show half of the $125m is yet to be allocated. According to the government, about $63m of the fund is still being “refined as initiatives are scoped and implemented”.

The responses also show the government’s plan to poach Stem teachers was based in part on “anecdotal evidence” that teachers from interstate and overseas were “interested in returning home to NSW especially during the Covid-19 pandemic”.

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Labor’s shadow education minister, Prue Car, has been critical of the government’s attempts to address staffing issues, saying teacher shortages were a “significant problem in NSW schools”.

“Half of the promised funds to address teacher supply issues are unallocated and the government’s scholarships are failing to attract the Stem teachers NSW needs,” she said.

“The NSW government needs to acknowledge the severity of the teacher shortages NSW faces and provide the investment needed to get this fixed.”

Mitchell said the full funding for the strategy had been allocated over the next four years and that “further details on the initiatives will be released as they are rolled out”.

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